Coming up next spring is the fourth annual Colorado Student Assessment Program (commonly referred to as CSAP) exams, which test students on standards-based criteria in math, science, reading and writing. Highly publicized and widely debated, the CSAP has not exactly been taking the back seat to other educational issues. In fact, it is has been and still remains the educational issue in the state, dividing teachers, administrators, state legislators and even the governor as to what function the CSAP should serve in public schools. It started as rallying cry from Gov. Bill Owens—his answer to the critics who said not enough was being done to adequately reform education within the state. For the past ten years, the country has been undergoing a radical change in education reform. Standards have been implemented in every public school system to make sure students are learning and performing at the levels expected of them and their respective grade levels. Owens saw this as not being enough, so he implemented the CSAP along with its penalties for under-performing schools, and rewards for high-achieving ones. To explain these penalties and rewards, the assessment system must be touched on first.
Based on a student’s overall test score, he/she is graded as one of the following: Advanced, Proficient, Partially Proficient or Unsatisfactory. Based on these student scores, a school’s grade is then calculated using a different ranking system: Excellent, High, Average, Low or Unsatisfactory. If a school receives an unsatisfactory rating for three years, it will be converted to a charter school and taken over by the state, just one of the CSAP’s wrinkles. These are the nuts and bolts of the CSAP, but it gets much more complicated than that. When different schools’ demographics are accounted for or when the amount of non English-speaking students are counted in a school in a school, it can be better realized that this may not be the answer to our educational reform questions. In fact, the CSAP does not offer the best solution for reform in educational accountability in public schools; it forces teachers to "teach to the test," it sets students up for failure, and it skews the public perception of schools through publicized grades.
In these times of standards-based testing in education, school districts, school boards and the public are holding schools and teachers highly accountable for the education of their students. In Colorado, Gov. Bill Owens has implemented the CSAP in his bid to reform educational accountability among public schools in the state. Based on the results of the test, individual schools are graded on a scale of Excellent, High, Average, Low or Unsatisfactory. Schools which do not place a certain number of students in the partially proficient and advanced categories are given failing grades, and then given a three-year period in which to improve those student’s grades to reach their quota. If this does not happen, the state takes over those schools and turns them into charter schools. This type of high-stakes testing has resulted in certain degree of anxiety among teachers and schools, fearing low scores on a tough standardized test, and being taken over by the state. To combat this, schools are finding their teachers "teaching to the test," to make sure their students have the necessary skills to receive a passing grade on the CSAP.
This may sound like a solid, fundamental plan to teach students; students are given the information they need to succeed, while achieving well on standards-based exams. However, it can be damaging in the long run. Teachers who teach to the test focus primarily on the content of the exam their students are taking, thus leaving out important information in certain areas of academia. In the case of some teachers in Colorado who are preparing students for the CSAP, the focus is on reading, writing, math and science. There are two things wrong with this. For one, a number of teachers are somewhat or completely ignoring social studies, an integral portion of an American public school education. The pressure to score well in math, science, reading and writing leads to the focus of instruction in those areas, which in turn leads to a contraction of the curriculum, and subjects like social studies and student electives are suffering because of it, according to Carla Santorno, a !
Denver Public Schools area superintendent (Kerwin A4). Another reason teaching to the test is hurting education is because it is teaching students in a rote and robotic manner, and students can learn to depend on this kind of instruction. Teachers are giving the students the information they need to succeed on the test, but not in educationally healthy ways. Rote memorization is being implemented to instill the basics of writing and science, while math and reading are given particularly heavy attention as teachers constantly drill students in math facts and reading comprehension. Teaching to the test may be helping some students succeed on the CSAP, but it will hurt students in the end.
According to Meaghan O’Brien, a fourth grade teacher at Cheltenham Elementary in Denver, students who are taught to the test will be lacking other skills they need to succeed in an educational setting, one being to think on their own. "As an educator it is my responsibility to give these children the tools they need to succeed, but the CSAP doesn’t give them all," O’Brien says (Ryckman E5). The CSAP’s pressure on teachers forces them to spoon-feed students the critical information that will help them perform well on the exam, and this is not the way students should be learning. Granted, students will need to be chauffeured through some subject material, but for the most part, teachers need to be selling the fact that most learning that occurs in students should be for learning’s sake. That is, students should actively pursue subject matter because they are interested in it, or because they know it will give them the skills they need to be successful outside of the classroom.
Teaching to the test is hurting students who are subjected to it, but the blame should not be placed on the teacher. Again, pressures to have students perform well on the CSAP can be overwhelming at times, forcing a teacher to contract their curriculum to fit in more instruction time for the subjects the students will be tested over. However, teaching to the test has another effect because it takes away from a teacher’s creativity, a source that can be critical to students’ learning. In some cases, as Beth Celva, director of assessment and testing for DPS, suggests, "If you take away the creativity of a teacher, you take away the learning of a student" (Ryckman E5).
Teachers who have to prepare students for the CSAP are given packets providing sample test questions, preparation ideas, and other suggestions to aide in students’ success on the exam. The pressure to have their students succeed in this high-stakes testing program can lead to teachers who rely too much on the preparation packets, and teaching directly from them. What happens to those creative ways teachers have of getting through to students? They still may be there, but they are diminishing quickly, giving way to pre-packaged techniques the state is recommending, and teachers are not as willing to a take a chance of not getting information across to their students.
As teachers are spending more time preparing their students for this standardized test, the time spent on standardized tests and these tests’ applicable values has to be questioned. On this point, there are several highly debated topics. The push for higher standards and more educational accountability has resulted in a complete overhaul in the educational system throughout the country. Students are presented with rubrics, which layout the requirements, or standards, a student must achieve to earn a particular grade in a class (CDE, "Teachers’ Guide" 28). This part of a standardized curriculum is good for our students, but what is hurting them are the disagreements between state legislators, school boards and individual schools and teachers. One problem with standards is they are being laid down by a state legislature whose members have not been directly involved in education anytime in the recent past, according to Celva (Ryckman E5). Teachers receive these standards and right away start deciphering them amongst their colleagues. Therein lies one problem with standards: teachers do not understand them, yet, they are expected to teach to these standards. As Alan C. Jones suggests in his article in this year’s May issue of Education Digest, "When people in a school do not understand a reform, it’s dead on arrival" (18). If teachers do not understand the standards their students must perform to, they are going to have a difficult time teaching effectively, at least based on what the state is expecting of them.
Standards have given education reform a big boost over the past decade. They show state legislators are not content with the current quality of education, and are trying desperately to do something about it. But before standards can effectively be implemented in public schools, other issues need to be addressed. Overcrowded classrooms are putting over 30 students in the hands of one teacher at a time (Jones 19). Issues outside of school, both for students and teachers, are not being dealt with before the school day starts, and with our country’s ever-growing diversity, teachers are finding more and more students who do not even speak English in their classrooms.
Although overall class sizes have declined in the last five years, the reductions have not compensated for increased diversity of students entering most classrooms. In Denver 40% of students come from a Spanish-speaking background (Mitchell, "Gaps in Achievement" B3). Teachers have too many students, too many demands on their time and too few hours to focus on first-rate standards. The larger the class size, the more time a teacher spends dealing with clerical and discipline issues, leaving even less time for instruction. Class sizes need to be reduced even further if the state legislature expects teachers to spend adequate amounts of time teaching to their standards, which leads to another issue: teachers are not even developing the standards they teach. Instead, state legislators come up with them and then distribute them to schools, wrongfully expecting teachers to adopt these standards as their own. Teachers and administrators need to be more actively involved in the development of state standards. Only then will standards take on a stronger priority in the public schools.
Another issue concerning standards is the amount of time it would take to make sure all the standards are being taught. In Jones’ article in Education Digest, he argues, "For all the standards to be taught, much less learned, all students would have to enroll in four years each of English, social studies, math, science, physical education and health, and fine arts" (19). Students who want to learn all the standards will be in their core academic classes (English, math, science, social studies) seven periods a day, and because of this, little time can be spent studying other subjects in a student’s area of interest. As Jones puts it, "Schools...will begin early, end late, have no electives, and give gifted students no lunch. I can’t wait for my first meeting with the football coach and the band director" (19). This shows the growing anxiety of teachers about student performance on standardized tests, and trying to help the students lead academically healthy and balanced lives. Standards, if implemented fully, will overrun the curriculum of schools, leaving their students with little choice of academic electives—another integral portion of a public education.
This standards-based craze in our public schools has lead to many debates over what our students should be learning in their classrooms. The Colorado legislature, Gov. Bill Owens, and the their implementation of the CSAP, have made that decision for us. With the CSAP, they are telling us that English, math, science and social studies are the most important, and should be intently focused on, which is fine. But where they have gone wrong is placing too much importance on this test to gauge whether or not a school and its students are performing up to standard. This has lead to high anxiety amongst teachers, administrators and parents, not to mention the stress students feel as a result of being surrounded by it all day. However, perhaps the most degrading aspect of the CSAP and its consequences, derived by the governor and legislators, is the way it sets students up for failure.
The CSAP has been in fruition now for three years, with this spring’s exam being the fourth year of testing in the state, and studies are showing that student performance has increased each year (Mitchell, "Gaps In Achievement" B3). However, behind this increase in performance lies a brutal reality that many teachers are agreeing with: The CSAP sets up students for failure on the annual exam.
Amy Reseigh has taught at Kendalvue Elementary in southwest Jefferson County for ten years, and has seen firsthand how the CSAP is implemented in classrooms, and she does not like what she sees. Part of her disgust lies in the test preparation packets that are given to schools to prepare their students for the CSAP, and then her students go to take the exam, and the questions, in some cases, are no where near what the students had been practicing for. "For three months leading up to the exam, I’ll spend four hours a day in preparation for the test, whether it be in reading, writing, or math. Then, when it’s time to take the test, I receive a copy of it, and right away I know which questions none or a very small majority of the students will answer correctly," Reseigh states. "I would say about 20% of the questions on the real exam have nothing to do with what we practiced leading up to the test, so why do they give us the preparation packets to begin with?" Reseigh’s frustration can be seen and heard in a wide range of teachers throughout the state. The state legislature produces these test preparation guides, only to administer a test that does not reflect the practice teachers have their students go through, but this is not the only way students are being set up for failure. Through irresponsible reporting on behalf of the media, the public perception of schools and students is being skewed.
Since its inception, the CSAP has garnered plenty of media attention, everything from irritated teachers and administrators who feel the burden being placed on their shoulders, to the calm, unassuming governor and legislators of this state. Newspapers and newscasts have held the CSAP as the focus of several pieces of journalism—a lot of them trying to explain the many facets of the program and its exams. For the past three years, each fall, every public school and its grade based on the CSAP has been publicized in the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post, leading to the praise and acclamation of high-performing schools, and the public discontent of low-performing schools.
One example of irresponsible reporting can be seen in the July 26, 2001 issue of the Denver Rocky Mountain News, whose headline on page 2E reads, "Caps Show Overall Gains, But 86% of 10th Graders Flunk Math Portion of Test." Read further into the article and you will find out that the 86% of students who "flunked" includes those who were Partially Proficient, which, if were to be converted to a standard grading scale would be a 70-75% (CDE, Demonstration Binder 13). Most of the public would not read past that headline, left with the assumption that 86% of Colorado’s 10th graders are flunking the math portion of the CSAP. One of Denver’s most widely read newspapers putting out headlines with this kind of language ("flunk") skews the public perception of how students and schools are actually performing on the CSAP exam. This kind of reporting twists the facts about the CSAP and its results and attempts to sensationalize them. In this day and age, with education and its refo!
rm being a touchy subject, the local media need to present the facts straight, and then let the public form their perceptions, instead of throwing around lies, which lead to an uninformed public.
Other than the media, blame for public misperceptions can put on the originators of the CSAP—Colorado legislators and the governor—and how they base the school ratings from the CSAP results. Students within a particular school who score Advanced are weighted differently than those who score Proficient, Partially Proficient or Unsatisfactory scores. These scores are then divided into the elementary, middle and high school classifications, where each classification could only receive a certain percentage of students in each scoring range. "State law required 8 percent of the schools in each grade level named excellent, the next 25 percent rated high, the next 40 percent rated average and the next 25 percent rated low. The bottom 2 percent of schools in each grade level were rated unsatisfactory" (Mitchell, "School Ratings" R5). This basically means even though a school had one less student score Advanced on the CSAP, they could be bumped down a category in the school listin!
gs because only a certain number of schools are allowed in each category. John Q. Public could be deciding where to send his kids to school, and seeing that his neighborhood school was not quite at the level as the school across town could send his children their instead, when it could very well be the case that his neighborhood school only had a few students who did not score Advanced on the CSAP, while the other school made up that difference with just a few students. This type of rating system only aids in skewing the public perception of schools based on the CSAP exam.
Another way students and schools lose before they even take the CSAP is through the program’s limited leniency involving students who are learning English as a second language. According to Nancy Mitchell’s article in the Denver Rocky Mountain News, the CSAP only allows for a certain percentage of a school’s population that is not primarily English speaking to be exempt from taking the exam, a large portion of which is reading and writing, even in parts of the math section which requires students to submit hand-written responses to word problems explaining their answers. The problem with this is that those students who do not end being exempt from the CSAP, even though they may not be fluent in English, still have to take the exam, and their scores are included in their school’s overall rating ("Gaps in Achievement" B3). In the same article, gaps in achievement between races are evident from the results of the 2001 CSAP. The widest gap existed in Boulder Valley schools, where the "percent of fourth grade Anglo students reading at grade level was double that of their Hispanic classmates" (Mitchell "Gaps in Achievement" B3). These numbers show gaps in achievement occur even in affluent neighborhoods, not just in the inner city or others areas which do not have the resources of most suburban schools. Bill De La Cruz, a member of the Boulder Valley school board says, "I guess on some levels people would think affluence and resources would equate to equality. But it doesn’t always happen that way."
Students in Denver who qualify for the free or reduced lunch program is at 62% of the population, one of the clearest indicators of poverty (Mitchell, "Gaps in Achievement" B3). Hispanic students make up 53% of district’s enrollment while Anglos make up 22%. In fourth grade reading results on the CSAP in Denver, 75% of students in low-poverty schools are reading at grade level, while in high-poverty schools, where more than three-fourths of students qualify for lunch aid, just 27% of students are proficient readers, or reading at grade level. These type of demographics are clear indicators the CSAP is not a fair assessment of students and their abilities in school, especially when students from one school district or area do not have the same resources as those from another district.
With all of these factors taken into account, one question needs to be answered: Is the CSAP fair? Without a doubt, educational reform deserves a sincere and exhaustive critique, and efforts by Gov. Owens and the state legislators to do their part in redirecting schools’ and teachers’ efforts towards standards-based education are well-intentioned, but inadequately thought through. The CSAP exam itself is a good plan because it requires students to submit insightful, well though-out answers in the writing portions to questions that are not of your typical assessment variety. But this is as good as it gets for the CSAP. As a whole, the CSAP needs vast restructuring, from the way schools and students are graded, to the consequences and rewards that befall schools as a result of the exams. Gov. Owens’ plan to increase teacher accountability to students is causing more uproar, uneasiness and stress than effective teaching. The CSAP is not the answer to educational reform efforts within the state, and it can only be hoped another plan is thought of and adopted before the consequences are too much for us to go back and remedy.
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